Will Cameron's deal with Merkel placate his party's sceptics?

German agreement to relax the working time directive is a real concession but maybe Tory backbencher

An outline is emerging of a deal between David Cameron and Angela Merkel over plans to revise the treaties that underpin the European Union.

It appears that over lunch at the end of last week, two leaders discussed the possibility of Britain refraining from serious obstruction to German plans for new rules governing how euro member countries manage their budgets. In exchange, Germany would not object to Britain seeking relaxation of the working time directive - the EU-wide regulations designed to limit the number of hours per week employees work and protect entitlements such as paid leave.

Leaving aside the question of whether Britain would really be better off or happier with a more dilute version of the directive (the UK already has the right to opt out of aspects of it) and looking purely in terms of what is diplomatically feasible for the UK, this seems like a decent compromise. Britain is not a euro member country and already has a reputation for surly reluctance when it comes to the "European project". The way the European debate has unfolded in Westminster in recent weeks has left our continental partners in no doubt that we do not see ourselves as integral players in the EU game. We want concessions on "repatriation of power" - largely so that the prime minister can show symbolic trophies to an implacably euro-phobic wing of his party - and must threaten to be obstructive in order to get them.

For countries that are in the euro and for whom the debate about fiscal integration and more rigorous rules of enforcement is existential, Britain's implicit threat to hold the process hostage must be classified somewhere on a spectrum between absurd and vindictive. David Cameron surely understands this (no doubt Merkel made it clear). He cannot veto a new EU treaty incorporating new eurozone rules without very seriously damaging Britain's diplomatic relations on the continent. What he needs is some kind of concession that is big enough to look like a loosening of ties with Brussels so that, when a revised treaty is agreed by the European Council, Tory backbenchers don't go berserk and demand a referendum on it.

The Working Time Directive is a good candidate. The Tories have always hated European influence on labour protection. Conveniently, the Lib Dems are also hostile to this particular bit of European regulation, so there is no risk of coalition tension. Merkel can be relaxed about it since it is marginal to her concerns and has no immediate bearing on budget discipline in the euro zone.

So the big question is whether it would be enough to persuade Tory backbenchers that Cameron is honouring his pledge to use treaty negotiations as the vehicle for repatriation of powers. If they sneer at this deal and insist that the Prime Minister go back for more, it would suggest that compromise is not really on their agenda at all and what they are really after is a kind of show-down that would make Britain's participation in EU structures as currently configured impossible.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation